Despite facing opposition and an economic downturn, Minnesota community solar has found its footing and is thriving. Spearheaded by Xcel Energy, the community solar garden initiative has fought through the COVID-19 pandemic and a slowing market to continue producing electricity for its subscribers. It’s estimated that the initiative topped out at a 680-megawatts operating capacity in 2020’s first quarter. Currently, that’s twice the capacity of Massachusetts, making Minnesota’s effort the most productive.
Though the nation is facing economic issues, Xcel Energy has reported that it will continue producing at its current levels. The company even applied for a 349-megawatt installation, which is still higher than Massachusetts’ 276 megawatts and New Yorks 261 megawatts.
The executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association David Shaffer commented on the success of Xcel’s initiative, stating that he wouldn’t be surprised if the Minnesota community solar production increased an additional 50 to 100 megawatts by the end of 2020. This comes even though there is limited space available in the state for community solar gardens. Shaffer states that there may be only enough space to develop an additional 300 megawatts.
Though Xcel Energy operates the Minnesota community solar programs, the utility provider has been lobbying to have the legislation reduced or canceled entirely. According to Xcel’s arguments, the community solar program costs too much to operate compared to utility solar projects. To counter Xcel’s claims, community solar advocates state that the utility provider does not consider the benefits.
Shaffer believes that if Xcel can shift to serve nonprofits and businesses, it will be able to convince legislators that the community solar programs are no longer for communities. As Minnesota law requires, all projects have a minimum of five subscribers, two of whom can claim 40% of power generation. With an increase in commercial use, Xcel may be able to shift focus back to the utility solar projects.
Based on Xcel’s reports, the community solar gardens serve 19,000 subscribers, though 86% of that capacity is commercial and industrial. Shaffer claims that this may eventually lead to community solar programs servicing strictly business clients.